Creators of Malcolm X opera say production pays tribute to 'a tragic hero'

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Detroit — Both in his brief life and the half-century after he was assassinated, civil rights leader Malcolm X has inspired many with a story closing linked to the nation's history.

While his story has resulted in films, documentaries, books and more, some might not be aware it also was the basis for an acclaimed opera.

The production, "X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X," is set to end the Michigan Opera Theatre's 2021-22 season in May.

On Friday, the creators discussed its origin and significance during a panel at the Detroit Institute of Arts' Detroit Film Theatre.

From left, Thulani Davis and Anthony Davis are the creative team behind the opera, "X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X."  They were photographed at the Detroit Film Theatre at the Detroit Institute of Arts in Detroit on Feb. 4, 2022.

They say the piece and its titular figure, who had Michigan ties, remain important.

"Malcolm is a tragic hero and ... what he went through to arrive at his revelations is, I think, a story people can really identify with," Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Anthony Davis told The Detroit News.

He and his cousin, Grammy Award-winning librettist Thulani Davis, discussed their collaboration that led to creating the piece, a recording of which received a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Classical Composition in 1992. 

The opera, directed by Tony Award nominee Robert O’Hara, is considered a reimagining of their work.

The production is the first professional staging of the entire piece since its 1986 premiere at New York City Opera and preserves the jazz ensemble incorporated into the orchestra, Michigan Opera Theatre officials said.

The opera presented at the Michigan Opera Theatre dovetails with his early years in Michigan, which coordinators say “shaped the brutal worldview and ultimate redemption of the man who would become Black activist, human rights icon, and legend Malcolm X.”

After it wraps in May, the show moves to venues in Omaha, Nebraska, Chicago and Seattle, Wayne Brown, president and CEO of the Michigan Opera Theatre, told the audience Friday.

"Detroit is going to export an incredible new production that will be seen and celebrated throughout the country and we’re thrilled we’re able to do so," he said.

The panel came early in the national observance of Black History Month, shortly after Malcolm X’s former home in Inkster was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and three weeks before the 57th anniversary of his assassination.

Born Malcolm Little, the leader was shot and killed on Feb. 21, 1965, in New York City as he addressed his Organization of Afro-American Unity at the Audubon Ballroom in Washington Heights. The married father of six was 39. 

The home in the 4300 block of Williams Street in Inkster is among a handful of places where Malcolm X lived. He was born in Nebraska and lived in the Lansing area as a child, attending Mason High School.

Malcolm X resided in the Inkster home in 1952 along with a brother, Wilfred Little, and his family when he left prison after serving time for burglary in Massachusetts. It is where Malcolm X made a full transformation into the Islam faith.

He also joined the Nation of Islam and became assistant minister at Detroit's Temple No. 1.

From left, Thulani Davis and Anthony Davis are the creative team behind the opera, "X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X."  They were photographed at the Detroit Film Theatre at the Detroit Institute of Arts in Detroit on Feb. 4, 2022.

The opera opens with Malcolm X's early days in Ingham County, covering his father being murdered by white supremacists. It then moves through the leader's life, influences and decisions.

The aim is "to identify with him and to feel what it’s like to be Malcolm X," said Anthony Davis, a music professor at the University of California, San Diego who has composed seven operas.

"That was always what drew me to the story and what it's saying about the evolution of how we think about the issues of freedom and equality in America."

He and Thulani Davis, who were youths when Malcolm X died, noted the music and chorus of voices reflect both his transformation as well as the impact on others surrounding him over the years.

"The music will carry them on this journey," said Thulani Davis, an interdisciplinary artist and scholar as well as an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin.

The chance to learn more encouraged attendees such as Gwen Stallworth of Detroit, who arrived early for the panel.

She had long been excited about the opera and wanted to learn more about its development.

“I’m always interested in anything about Malcolm X,” she said. “He was ahead of his time. …Things he spoke of are still relevant in today’s society.”